Climate Change Is Shorten's Big Chance


I've been travelling through Eastern Europe for the past month, researching a book and taking in some of the sights of this grand continent.

Travel may not always broaden the mind, but it does provide some perspective. One of the strangest things I've seen on my trip was on the TV screen in the lobby of my hotel in Budapest. I arrived for breakfast one morning to see a large image of Tony Abbott, framed beside the headline “ABSOLUTE C**P”. Australian climate policy, it seems, is international news.

International media organisations are not always paragons of accuracy, but they do have different agendas and different owners to the small circle of billionaires and editors that control Australia's domestic news-gathering. Perhaps this is why they have covered the New South Wales bushfires and their potential links to climate change rather differently to much of the Australian media.

For those of us already accustomed to complacent, even fawning coverage of the new Government, the tone of frank ridicule for the Coalition's climate scepticism by CNN, the BBC, and Time magazine is illuminating.

Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt's climate scepticism have been given significant prominence. On CNN, for instance, Christiane Amanpour is a network star. Time's feature story was headlined “Climate Change Affects Australia’s Epic Wildfires — No Matter What Prime Minister Says.” 

International coverage of climate change is simply different from Australian coverage. It is more detailed, deeper and better informed by the science. There is certainly no shortage of mendacity and trivia, but on the whole there is far less attention afforded to scientifically dubious claims and politically motivated false balance. So when someone of Amanpour or Bryan Walsh's calibre look at Australian climate politics, it's not surprising they find the slogans of Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt disingenuous, and the policies of the Abbott government less than credible.

Just how poorly Australians have been served by domestic media coverage of climate science and policy is underlined by the release of a new report yesterday from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism's Wendy Bacon (who is also a contributing editor of New Matilda). Entitled Sceptical Climate, the report examined 10 newspapers across two three-month periods in 2011 and 2012. All in all, the study looked at more than 600 articles dealing with climate science. Around a third were sceptical or critical of the consensus scientific position on anthropogenic global warming.

In the Murdoch tabloids, the skew was even more pronounced: 73 per cent of the words in climate-related articles in The Daily Telegraph were devoted to sceptical positions. In the Herald Sun, it was 81 per cent. Much of this skew can be explained by the dominant role of conservative anti-science columnists like Andrew Bolt, who play a particularly pernicious role in the Australian policy debate.

This media skew, along with the undeniable popularity of the Coalition's anti-carbon tax campaign, helps to explain the relatively low level of scrutiny that has been exerted on the Coalition's risible Direct Action policy. As regular New Matilda readers will know, Direct Action is best thought of as a type of greenwashing. Because the Coalition is not yet prepared to simply abandon its pretence to meeting Australia's 5 per cent 2020 emissions reductions target, Direct Action allows it to argue, however unbelievably, that it is still committed to climate action.

Because of Labor's disastrous handling of carbon policy in government – not to mention the visceral atmosphere of climate denial in the conservative media catalogued by the ACIJ – it has so far been possible for the Coalition to avoid serious scrutiny on carbon. In this, the new government has been aided by a tendency by journalists and academics to lean on the easy crutch of “realism”. Rather than examine the larger reality of irreversible and dangerous climate change, some commentators have found it all too easy to throw a few poll figures about and opine on the ineradicable hostility of the Australian voter towards energy taxes. 

But received wisdom won't help Environment Minister Greg Hunt forever. Before long, he's going to have his work cut out explaining a nonsensical and incoherent policy agenda. Direct Action can't work, and everyone with a reasonable understanding of climate policy knows it – including Hunt. He and other senior members of the Government aren't worried about Australia's emissions targets. They know that in the post-truth era of politics, inconvenient facts like carbon emissions levels can be massaged, spun or simply covered up. If the worst comes to the worst, the Coalition can always give up on emissions reductions altogether – as the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in Canada has. In the meantime, the government will continue to use carbon policy as a weapon against the ALP.

By the way, the very fact that anyone is talking about Labor's position on carbon highlights a pressing problem for new Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten: how to get his colleagues to stop backgrounding press gallery journalists. At this early point of the election cycle, what Labor needs most is some time away from the spotlight. But old habits die hard. Labor politicians appear incapable of deleting journalists' contacts from their phones.

The Opposition's bigger dilemma is of course policy. Should Labor stick to its guns on climate policy, and vote against Direct Action in Parliament? If so, it can expect merciless ridicule from the Government and its cheerleaders in the conservative media. Should Labor therefore wave through Abbott's policies, signalling that it has “listened” to the electorate on the issue of carbon pricing? By doing so, Shorten will backflip on a policy Labor supported (albeit with much prevarication) throughout two terms of government.

Current political reality dictates that whatever Labor does now will seem weak and short-sighted. That is the fate of newly defeated oppositions. At this stage of the political cycle, tactical manoeuvres matter very little. Most voters are not paying attention.

But in the longer view, Labor's dilemma resolves itself. That's because the ALP's position on climate matters only to one group of voters: its base. An important section of Labor's membership and core support base cares deeply about climate. Marginal voters hate the carbon tax, but their opposition is shallow and probably temporary. No-one else really cares.

This is a political opportunity for Bill Shorten, should he be wise enough to seize it. With little to lose, he now has an opportunity to take a stand on climate. Tacking left on carbon policy, for instance by supporting a higher emissions reduction target, will most likely cost the ALP in the polls in the short term. But in the longer term, it might be the beginning of a meaningful 2016 agenda.

Or maybe not. Perhaps Bill Shorten cares more about short-term poll figures than the long-term policies of his party. Time will tell.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.